The Cancer Genome Atlas Project

Scientists have mapped specific genes that turn normal healthy cells into cancerous cells through The Cancer Genome Atlas Project (TCGA).

Through the TCGA, researchers have now developed a more reliable scientific method to identify these genes.   As this research is shared around the globe, more accessible and effective cancer treatment options are being discovered.  The ultimate goal of the TCGA is to create a catalogue of these “defective” genes, thereby offering increased detection, and ultimately, better prevention and treatment of cancer.     

As healthy cells grow and divide, they not only produce more healthy cells but also kill off cells that are no longer needed.  A cancer cell is produced when an otherwise healthy cell grows abnormally or does not die off when it should.  These cancerous cells then form a mass or tumor.

Through the TCGA, researchers are trying to pinpoint why these specific genes change and how that can lead a cell to become cancerous.  Once this information is gathered, cancer treatment will move to a more targeted form of treatment.  Doctors will target only the abnormal gene, as opposed to today’s standard treatment of chemotherapy, which affects the whole body.  Such a change in treatment will be beneficial because standard chemotherapy kills off cancerous cells but also some healthy cells in the process.  If researchers can instead identify the “defective” genes and target them directly, healthy cells will stay intact and be less affected by the cancer treatment.

For example, the National Institutes of Health recently announced that TCGA identified distinct subtypes of glioblastoma multiforme, the most common form of malignant brain cancer in adults.  In the past, doctors treated this type of brain tumor as a single disease, whereas now they know that glioblastoma multiforme is, in fact, four distinct molecular subtypes.

In addition, through the TCGA, researchers have also discovered that response to chemotherapy and radiation differed by gene subtype.  Although the current standard of treatment will not change overnight, these new discoveries will help doctors to tailor a cancer treatment plan using genetic information.  

Originally a pilot project, TCGA has turned out to be quite a success in demonstrating the value of cancer research.  In the fall of 2009, President Obama announced that the National Institutes of Health will spend $275 million to expand TCGA to other types of cancer, thus opening the door for more specific treatment options and hopefully more cures.

To learn more about the cancer cells we have in our body, please read our January 27 blog post at:

For further information on The Cancer Genome Atlas Project, please visit:

About Elisabeth Schuler

The curator of this blog is Elisabeth Schuler, Founder and President of Patient Navigator, LLC. Her goal is to inform readers about important healthcare topics and teach them to become informed healthcare consumers.
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